Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Few Travels

I went to the village of Ankoh, on the NorthWestern tip of the Sahara, where it is so hot and dry that they no longer worship a God but a liquid instead. When they go to church on Sundays they drink water from the cup; and when they watch the sun rise over the lake at the end of the week they cover their eyes, so as to shield themselves from the image of their Lord. They have a shrine on the edge of the village, near the church, where they lay down offerings of water, in cups and bowls of all shapes and colours, some cracked and some clean and whole, and all laid out in a shining clutter. Once in their lives they make a pilgrimage to the sea.

From Ankoh I flew to Africa, and saw (among other things) the Stone-Chiefs of Mozambique. The Stone-Chiefs cover themselves in lichen and moss and grey pigments drawn from the stone-berry, and crouch down in the middle of a vast bowl in the earth. The bowl was dug many centuries ago, but it must be continuously repaired, and the loose dirt cast out, so as the retain the shape and dimensions that were decreed by the first Stone-Chief, Makaroth, whose great-great-great-great grandson I saw crouching in the sun, perfectly still and covered in lichen and moss and grey pigments drawn from the stone berry. There is a death-sentence for anyone who disturbs the Stone-Chiefs of Mozambique: no villager has yet suffered this fate (although there are frequent near misses, as in the recent case of the man who inadvertently stepped on a poisonous Minkoh, and let out a loud cry that caused one or two stone-chiefs to shuffle about in an irritated manner.)

I saw the red bulls of outer Ghana, and the ten-fingered plant of the Ivory coast. I went to Nepal and heard stories from the people there about the people who climb the mountains and the extraordinary heights to which they climb. “Baramu my brother was one of the greatest of our climbers,” one of the men told me, “and he used to climb so far that he would break through sky and see the stars on the other side, even during the day. There is no protection up there from the sun, and if you do not wear proper clothing then cancers break out on your arms like freckles.”

I went from hot to cold then back again, and found myself in the fruit fields of Italy, where the trees are so full of fruit that the branches snap off in mid-summer, and the pickers have to move very quickly so as to rescue the fruit from under the wood, where they can easily become squashed and rotten. Because of the damage to the trees, there is only one harvest every five years; but the tress in each harvest are so heavily laden that the people never run out. I was told by a villager that the traditional preserving techniques are unmatched by modern science. “We keep fruit like we keep wine, in barrels that are kept in the ground and covered in the sap of the sickle-berry tree; we leave them there to age and mature, our plums and apricots, and we do not take them out until they are properly done.” She took me into her house in the village (a small stone cottage, with windows in the roof) and gave me a nectarine that she had harvested in 1973. It was a deep orange colour, almost brown, and tasted faintly of mint.

You cannot leave the fruit fields of Italy without passing down the Valley of Hives, and this journey was one of the highlights of my trip. “There are over a hundred thousand hives in the valley,” my guide informed me, “and a hundred million bees. Every hive has been given a name, and we care for them like they are our children.” I heard the Valley of Hives and straight-away I thought of a great choir; I saw the Valley of Hives and straight-away I thought of a great carpet, because the bees were matched in numbers by the flowers, which grow there as if none of them ever die.

I took a boat out of Italy and sailed for weeks and weeks until I came to the end of ocean-rivers. The ocean-rivers are great currents that begin at the coast, where the rivers emerge from the continent, and end for no reason whatsoever. You anchor down at a certain point in the ocean: you look to the North, and the sea is highway of streams and white rapids; you look to the South, and it is just a quiet normal sea, with one or two salmon swimming round and looking lost.

It was all very exciting, and I hope to do it all again very soon, in other exotic and dangerous parts of the world; but first I have to have eat a proper meal and get a good night’s sleep.

Death and Beauty in Otaki Gorge

The degree of settler progress into Otaki Gorge is marked, I suppose, by the landscape, the bush in particular. And, even if it is not so marked, this is an agreeable conceit, and one which lends itself to a jaunty and knowledgeable account of the different kinds of treelife that make their home on the outer slopes of this section of the Tararua Forest Park. Unfortunately I could only sound knowledgable if I lied, and so I’ll just aim for jaunty.

First there are the pines, angular and homogenous, with a serrated skyline and lego-tree neatness. I am sure that there are some places in the world where pines-in-bulk is an attractive landscaping feature, but I do not think NZ is the place. Pinues radiata was chosen as a prime crop, so I am told, because in colonial days a number of rich Europeans enjoyed themselves by competing for the most thorough and immaculate collection of pine trees. He who could grow all 73 varieties of pine in his backyard, and keep them in good condition, would stand to earn a small silver trophy, a certificate congratulating him on his hard-work and pomposity, and bitter neighbours. These competitions doubled, fortuitously but fortunately, as experiments in comparative arboreology (meaning the study of relative merits of tree species, if the reader has not heard this phrase before, or if indeed the phrase does not acutally exist); and these experiments led timber merchants to conclude that Pinus Radiata was the most fast-growing variety, and produced pretty good timber, so the merchants (or rather their moustache-wearing, meat-handed, hard-working labourers) proceeded to grow these trees, hack them down, strip them naked and turn them into houses. Pinus Radiata were introduced by new immigrants for economic reasons: when found in large quantities, these trees still have a look of foreignness and artificiality about them.

Further down the valley the bush is more native and natural in appearance, but it still shows the impact of a troubled past. It is green all right, and the hillsides are alive with nikau palms and tree ferns, but it is young bush, patchy and thin. On the river terraces it gives way completely to yellowish-white grasses, knee-high and dense as wheat. And occasionally these grasses themselves give way, to form the walking tracks that I’ve walked along twice a day for the last week, tracks that wind through paddocks of grass and stop at the river beds, like botched crop-circles.

The loggers troubled the bush, but the bush also troubled the loggers. The logging company whose artefacts I have come here (along with a dozen other volunteers) to recover, flourished in the 1930s, during the depression years. Deep poverty and unemployment during this time meant that people were happy enough to get work, without the work being the sort of work where one had a high chance of retiring with all body parts in tact. Men who worked on the railways, at the sawmill and at the logging face, were in danger of breaking limbs and faces and bodies, and they did. A hearty, knowledgeable bloke gave a talk on the history of bush tramways, and a prominent theme was the perilousness of the work, and the injuries that resulted from it. Floors were slippery, rails were steep, hours long and logs big. New technology sometimes eliminated the really dangerous jobs, but it usually created one or two new ones. When logs were hauled over the ground by rope, for example, one guy pushed his luck and scared his mother by working the rope that did the hauling. This rope was passed through pulleys, so that the logs could be passed around corners; unfortunaely, the log could not pass through the pulleys, so the rope-man had to unhitch the rope from the pulleys when the logs came past. The log was dragged p to the pulley, the rope unhitched, and the log jerked past. The thing that did the jerking was an astonishing machine called a log-hauler; the man who controlled the jerking stood at the log-hauler; and the man who told the log-hauler man when to do the jerking was the rope-man. Most of the time, the system worked: the log stopped and started when it was supposed to, the rope was properly unhitched, and the body of the rope-man was not burst under a log like a possum under a car. Other times, the system did not work.

Because of the times when the system failed, and for reasons of speed and economy, a new system was created. Now the logs were swung above the terrain on a wire that was strung between tree-high poles, like a single telephone wire across telegraph poles. The rope-men swore at their bloody pulleys for the last time, got smashed at the pub, and moved on to a job less likely to kill them. All, that is, except those who became pole-men. The pole-men were charged with climbing the tree-high poles so that they could create and maintain the bits of machinery that supported the wire and the flying logs. Cranes and helicopters were in short supply in those days, and so the pole-man got to the top using ten planks of wood, one axe, and a lot of muscle. The axe made notches in the pole at about chest-height. The planks went in the notches. To make the first notch, the pole-man stood on the ground. To make the other notches, he stood on the planks. To get from one plank to another he used a lot of muscle. If the plank, stuck into the pole like a loose tooth, did not break or slip out of its little cavity, and if the pole-man, strung over the wooden tooth like a piece of last night’s roast, kept his grip and his nerve; then he would head pretty smartly onto the plank and move onto the next one. If not, he would head pretty smartly towards the ground and move onto the next world.

Anyway, back to the bush. At the place where the log-hauler hauled the logs and the rope-man tried not to die, the bush is similar in species to the bush further down the gorge. It differs from the other bush mainly in its thickness. It is dense and moist and green as moss: nikau palms and tree ferns lean out from the hillside and spread their palms benevolently over the vegetation beneath them, like motherly arms. Fern fronds are beautiful things. Tapered, green, fractalled, they splay about like peaceful spears, intricately carved. It is no surprise that the silver fern, with its surprising underside, is a national emblem. It features on one of the flag designs that has been proposed by forward-looking people to replace the British-looking thing that we have at the moment; you can see it on the helmets of NZ cricket players; and when All Blacks get sentimental they talk about “wearing the silver fern” on their jerseys. The Department of Conservation (the organisation that runs the volunteer week I have just completed, and many other things besides) also uses the fern as a logo, this time in its youthful, furled version, with one curling stalk, wound inwards like a seahorse tail; and with all the other curling parts that will eventually unfurl to produce the elegant pattern, hierarchically repeated, of the open frond. The stalks of the fern are brownish black and covered in dark hairs, like the legs of spiders.

Toitois hem the bush at the edge of the creek that runs through the gully. Toitois have straw-coloured stalks that lean out from the bush, a blast in stasis, and they curve slightly from the weight of the flower at the end, a drooping pennant of fluff. The stalks seem to be made up of concentric cylinders, and the outer layers dry up, stiffen and detach from the stalk. These discarded skins are crunchy underfoot, and they collect in and around the toitoi bushes, dry and curled like wood-shavings from a very long plank.

The creek chatters and tumbles in the way that streams do when they are shallow and stone-filled. The water is wonderfully clear. There is not much difference between viewing the stones directly, and viewing them through the water. The latter are darkened by moisture, browned by a layer of slime that makes river-crossing such a refreshing activity, and distorted by the swirling wrinkles that texture the surface of the water, squeezing the rocks into corresponding wrinkles and, on sunny days, casting a wobbly net of light onto the creek bottom. Otherwise, the water in this place is as transparent as the air, and on good days it looks as if the creek is empty except for a thin layer of molten glass sliding over the rocks on a river of air. In some places the illusion is broken by eddies and waterfalls. In one place, a pair of large rocks create a minor damn. They back the water up then spill it out, and at the foot of the rocks the water plunges down deep then bubbles up in a champagne froth, pale-green and ceaseless.

Paraparaumu Beach

One plausible guide to the current distribution of ethnic groups in NZ is the distribution of Maori place names in the country. This is a pretty rough guide, since those names were assigned quite some time ago, when populations may have been quite different from what they are now; and a large Maori or Pacific population does not always constitutute a powerful population, the kind of population that has the clout to decide the official names of town and cities. But general knowledge tells me that people of color are less well-represented in the South than in the North. And when I look down the map of the South Island I see names like Endeavour Inlet, Portage, Mt. Pleasant and Grovetown, with a smattering of names like Taumarina and Hapuku. When I look up the North Island I see names like Te Horo, Paekakariki, Paraparaumu, Waikanae, Waikawa Beach, full of warm vowels and heritage, with a smattering of names like Plimmerton and Gladstone.

Paraparaumo, where I stayed for two nights and a day, certainly has the warm vowels. I do not know about its heritage, but I do know about its beach, which is beautiful, popular and long. The lenght means that, despite the popularity, it is possible to enjoy the beach almost uninterrupted by the sounds of barbequeues and dogs and small children: on a recent sunny Sunday in February I stood on the beach and saw eight or nine seagulls in the vicinity, and they outnumbered the people. The beach has the feel of being hugged by two long arms of land. To the South, there are the hills around Wellington. To the North, there is Kapiti Island, an arm that is severed from the body of land just behind me, but which gives an impression of hugging nonetheless. Kapiti is long and hilly and covered in dark trees, like an enormous upturned canoe that has been left to rot and gather moss. During the day it is green and majestic; during the night it is black and mysterious.

I arrive on Paraparaumu beach on a perfect evening. There are enough clouds over the horizon to kindle the sun into a pink and orange fire; few enough to show the vast tarpaulin of the sky, with its graded, untextured purity and its gaseuous intermingling of blue and yellow, the latter rising up off the horizon in a golden steam. On the horizon there is a long, shallow cloud that looks like a distant mass of land, another New Zealand, and as the light goes it changes from the colour of sand, to wet sand, to charcoal, to black.

I have an evening swim in the Tasman sea. Perhaps because the beach is in the lee of Kapiti Island, or for some other reason, the waves do not rise up and pound into the sand: they move into the beach in layered sheets, and fold into themselves when they run out of steam. The look is that of a wide body in a perpetual state of dressing and undressing: the larger waves froth about like white tutus, the lesser ones have frilly hems and foamy lacework, and a film of translucent underwear slips out from under the skirts at the end of every dressing, preceded by a narrow but pretty hemline; and when this watery undergarment slips back down the beach the undressing has begun, with the skirts and pleats and jostling ribbons drawn back and tucked away, then ironed out and cleaned so they are ready to be donned and tossed about all over again. The underwear (the one with the narrow but pretty hem) leaves behind streaks of dampness in the sand, and along these streaks the sand is reflective, metallic-looking, like wet skin. When you step on these areas of wetness the disturbance spreads out in a disc of bruised sand, which collapses into a footprint when you lift your leg. The movement of water of the sand pushes the sand into corrugations, in much the same way, I suspect, that the wind in the Sahara drives the sand into long wrinkles. In some places the disturbed sand is less like a corrogation and more like a network of plaids, layered and criss-crossed and inter-threaded. When a film of sea comes over these plaided areas of sand, it looks as if the water is seething with eels.

I do not see any driftwood coming in on the waves, but I must have come at the wrong time, because the beach has piles of the stuff. It is smooth as paper and almost as white, and it makes good fires. It gathers at the top of the beach in a long band, white and bony like a ship-wrecked Noah’s Ark and the remains of its cargo.

I drink some bear and say one or two things to one or two people. Talking is not a high priority here, however. It is socially acceptable to stop mid-sentence and look out to the sea and the island and the sky, and those elements are of a kind and quality that usually causes people to fall silent.

Charming Centre, Crumbling Suburbs

I am no architect, and perhaps not an aesthete either, but the architecture of Wellington seems to me to be one of its most attractive features. The whole city, like the museum, is in a state of agreeable disorder. In the central city, architectural features fit together without fitting into any obvious pattern. Beside the Art Gallery in a square lined with steel palms there is a café. Next to the café is a glass wall with white bands between the panels. The bands are arranged diagonally, and at variable angles, so that each door is an irregular trapezium. This is all very nice, but the thing I want to note is that, although there is no wall made in the same style anywhere in the vicinity (at least, that I could see), or even anything approaching that style, the slanting wall seems to fit in very nicely, and not be awkward or pretentious. Go around the corner and there is something altogether different, a shady area filled with traditional-looking flower beds, neatly symmetric and made of red brick. Go around another corner, and in another bed there is a set of weird, modern-looking cairns, like enormous, tapering piles of stone pikelets. One of the piles is inverted, so that the smaller pikelets are on the bottom.

Architectural curiosities abound in the central city, and mostly they are charming and arty. (This state of affairs my be contrasted with Christchurch, where there are also a few architectural oddities. In the southern city these features aim for the same look as the Wellington ones, but in my experience and opinion they just end up being arty.) The steel nikaus, palms opening very beautifully into a ring of metal arcs, are distinctive and popular; and so is the silver hanging ball, suspended two stories up from invisible wires, hollow and enclosed by curving native leaves. You can look up through it and see blue sky through the gaps in the leaves, as through the gaps in a forest canopy. In Plimmers alley there is the bronze man with a bronze jumping dog stuck to his left knee. A miniature cable car, set upon a pole, points the way to the somewhat larger cable-car that runs up past a botanic gardens and a cricket field. There are the giant bowling balls, the pinpong ball lamps, the fabulous wooden sculpture on the bridge, runnelled and vigorously angular. In one entrance to Cuba Mall there is a colourful, insectile object on top of a pole. In another place there are two large flat rectangles of silver metal sticking out of the ground. They are interesting because they are covered in large metal hemispheres, and look like a model of a skin disease, or a giant piece of Braille.

And of course there is the bucket sculpture in Cuba Mall. This may not be a spectacular sculpture, but it is charming and it was there when I was young and so I am going to describe it in more detail. Imagine a giant pear, just like a normal pear except giant and hollow and made of metal. Paint it in a primary colour of your choice. Then cut it in half, so you have two primary-coloured things that can hold water. Get five pears of the same kind, paint them in other primary colors then cut them in half as well. Attach all of these primary-colored pear-buckets to a black metal structure, so that when any one bucket is filled up sufficiently with water, it tips over and dumps the water out the thin end, the stalk-end if we’re still thinking pears. Get some hoses put in at the top of the structure, so that water goes into the top bucket. Arrange things so that all the other buckets share around the water that is dumped from the top bucket, and so you get an odd, fascinating, arrhythmic cascade of water, with periods of calm build-up where no water changes bucket, periods of short splashes, and periods of splashing, dunking chaos where all the buckets flip and roll and groan on their axles and mesmerized tourists stand around getting wet. This is the bucket-fountain on Cuba Street. It may not be quite as spectacular as it sounds, but it is a good idea and it’s been there for a while.

After you’ve drenched yourself in Cuba Mall, go to the cable car and slide up a hill in a quaint red carriage. Get out at Kelburn and walk around. If you’re like me, you’ll start at one place, go in what appears to be the right direction, get lost, retrace your steps in the wrong direction, and generally go around in what appears to be a circle while arriving at a place three blocks from where you started. The confusion here is due partly to my own dodderiness. But I think I am justified in laying some of the blame on the suburban architecture of Wellington, which can in turn be blamed on the hills, great humps that twist streets and confound vehicles in a way that would have pleased MC Escher, and generally conduct a happy revolt against rectangular neatness. The suburbs of Wellington look as if they are being constantly tossed about, and it is a miracle that anything stays in the same place. This may be compared instructively to the suburbs of Christchurch, which look as if they are being constantly steamrolled, and it’s a miracle that anything changes place. Grass curbs are a microcosm of the greater differences between the cities. In Christchurch, curbs are easy to maintain, and usually they are maintained, often in immaculate condition. The typical kerb is homogenous and green and well-shorn, and dull as billiard cloth. In Wellington, in the hill suburbs, it is impossible to keep an immaculate curb. The roads are too narrow, and there are too many funny angles. Instead of the staid rectangles of grass that you might find in Fendalton or Burnside, in the hill suburbs of Wellington you find overgrown lozenges, banks made of concrete, banks made of some kind of shingly conglomerate, or banks made of earth too steep to cultivate and overrun by grasses, flax, forgetmetnots, ivy. Odd bits of brick poke out in various places; loose stones crumble away from footpaths; here is an old concrete wall embedded in clay, and there are two or three bricks, chipped and still hemmed by cement. Steps twist up between houses, with strips of white painted on their edges so that midnight drunks and bag-laden housewives can get to the front door without multiple fractures. Here is a driveway pushed into the hill at a dislocated angle, with cement lathered on like icing and with moss pushing up from underneath and making systems of cracks, little rivulets of green. There are one-lane streets where parked cars take up one lane and moving cars do what they can with the rest. There are houses from all perspectives: from above you can see barbequeues and swimmingpools, and potted cacti at the front doors; from below you see a lot less, a garage and a few steps and the red or green border of a corrugated roof. It is all quaint and pleasant and suburbian, filled with casual prosperity, ramshackle without being rundown.

I quite like Wellington.

Round the Bays for a Root

It is 2 o’clock in Wellington and windy. It is a generic sort of day in the capital city of New Zealand, too many clouds to be summery, too few to be wintery, and a morose, stippled ocean. Te Papa, the national museum, stands to my right, and it slopes to the sea in a way that may be an imitation of a whale, possible of a ship, perhaps of the warehouses and skyscrapers that fill the skyline with their clutter of vertices, perhaps of the bank of rocks that fill, with their gray sides and random edges, the gap between sea and promenade; or even the houses that jostle for position on the hills of Island Bay or Kelburn. It is hard to say: in Wellington, everything slopes towards the sea. I am most attracted, however, to the whale option: the museum, with its hooded green eye and broad flanks, squints out to sea like something you would find in Kaikoura.

To my left are street lamps made of giant ping-pong balls. These may be designed to match the giant silver bowling balls that sit in a row behind me, on the wooden planks of the wharf. Over the water towards Oriental Bay there is a nest of yachts, white and naked without their sails and squinting out to sea like Te Papa, their cabin windows catching the sun. To my left there are ships, cranes and containers, and a wharf jutting out into the harbour, its struts round and closely spaced, like the tops of sunken collonades. Loud music comes up from somewhere, and it give the place a communal feel, as if the whole waterfront is someone’s backyard during an afternoon party. A young man sits on the plank next to me and starts reading a book. After a while he goes away again. After another while I go away as well.

I go around the bays. Oriental, Evans, Kau, Mahanga, Karaka, Worser, Breaker, Lyall, Houghton, Island. The road wobbles around the coast, and cyclists wobble around the road. All around the coast, dark brown rocks crumble into the sea like bits of loose shingle. These rocks are and ribbed and pooled and pitted, and you won’t get across them very fast in bare feet. If you do get across them, you can see dark brown seaweed, the same colour as the rocks, swishing around in the surf and sliming up the rocks. In Oriental Bay, people with good bodies play volley-ball and sit in vans and generally don’t do a whole lot of swimming. In Worser Bay, people with less good bodies paddle in the opal sea and look out for jelly fish. The beaches are small and embraced by peninsulas of rock. There are one or two snorkelers, and one or two upturned dingies with white peeling paint and names with stories behind them: Martha, Slingshot, Seahorse.

One of these bays is home. It is strange to go home, like coming back from the dead. Everything is spectral and strange, not because it is ghostly but because I am. It is strange to see that everything has moved to 2007 in the same way that I have. I feel that if I just peeled back a layer or two of this place then I would find that really, under the present-day surface, it is just how it was when I was there, its true self. But I know that there would be nothing like that at all. It’s all been peeled away or forgotten or taken down, like the old wallpaper; or been taken somewhere else and changed in the normal way, like me. For example, everything is smaller than I remember it. When I was here last, the walnut tree was a great, tangled, swooping thing, something in which you could get lost and giddy. Now it is a modest sort of bush, not much taller than I am. It feels as if somewhere in the present, just behind the surface of the present world but present nonetheless, is a little boy climbing an enormous walnut tree. But the only place where that scene exists is in myself, and I am tall and the tree is not much taller. This is not an unhappy thing to know, just strange: I have come back from the dead to find that everything I knew is as dead as I am.

There are places, however, that are strange because of their familiarity. There is a park near the house. In the park there is a large pine tree with a root that curls out of a bank and makes a circle that is perfectly sized so that a boy can sit on the edge, wriggle down into it, sit there for a while with the root around his waist like a lifebuouy, and then find that he can’t get out. One day, I couldn’t get out, and I wet my pants. The circular root is still there. I visit this root, touch the bark on it for a bit, look around at the trees for a while, hum a tune, then walk away.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Kaikoura and Beyond

Kaikoura is a small town on the East Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, famous among tourists for its whales - great grey beasts, submarines with tails – and among UC Philosophy students for its lodge, which affords an excellent view of an ocean that ends in Chile, and an excellent chance to undertake philosophical activities such as drinking beer, which usually ends in sillygism. When I went through this town on my way up to Wellington for the GREs the hills rose out of a skirt of clouds, like dwarf Everests, and there was a patch of dirty foam stuck in one place, just offshore. At 9 0’clock in the morning the town has a general appearance of greyness. It also has the vacant, modest look of a place designed to admit outsiders rather than cultivate insiders, a place whose main visible occupants are tourists and seagulls. The seagulls have the alert, inquisitive look of beings who have just dropped in for a few minutes and intend to leave very soon. The tourists look much the same. The tourists look at the seagulls with cameras; seagulls look back through their orange rims. The sea drops heavily against the sand, but it has no effect on the dirty foam, which stays stuck.

The bus is large and white with black windows and a sleek, rectangular look about it, like a fridge wearing dark glasses. The driver also wears dark glasses, and he is also large, but he is certainly not sleek. His face has the crumpled, bulldog look that Maori faces often have when they are depicted in cartoons. In the cartoons they are often equipped with large bellies, and the driver has one of them as well. The guy in the bus mimics the cartoons, then; but a few seats from the front there is the guy who inspired them: small eyes, heavy drooping nose, skin like bark, thick neck, multiple pregnancy. There are metal bars on the seats that I believe are called armrests: the living caricature uses both of them as bumrests. He does have a kind of stern grace about him, like a whale’s grace, and he would be a fearsome sight paddling a waka, and a friendly, fatherly sight collecting pipis. Sitting on his armrests, however, in his tourist jeans and striped shirt and red golf visor, he is the satirists’ dream.

When the driver says “Kaikoura”, he pronounces the last two syllables with the deft accent that newsreaders try to imitate but which they usually turn into an awkward stab or a bloated collection of vowels.

There is not much to see or hear out of Kaikoura, unless you’re keen on wide, slapping oceans and shimmering wheatfields and paddocks full of grass and drooping cattle. I was probably keen on that sort of thing on the first five times I made this trip. This time I am entertained by the two young kids in the next seat and the fence posts blurring past the window on the right-hand side of the road. In front of the fenceposts there are metal road markers. At the base of one of them there is a piece of orange peel, looking very peeled and very orange. Halfway between two of those markers there is a fist-sized rock with a band of bright yellow paint on it. “The sea is a big puddle,” says one of the kids, a girl. She says it in the triumphant, uncompromising way that children sometimes have, as if they are telling someone off and enjoying it. “A big, big puddle.”

In one place the grass on the edge of the road has been peeled away like skin, and rolled up against the fenceposts. A yellow roller turns a pile of shingle into a cricket-pitch.

“I can’t see,” says the girl. “I can’t see anything.” She has the window-curtain wrapped around her face and is peering through it. The mother has to say something, and might as well make it educational. “Yes dear, it looks as if you can’t. Do you know why you can’t see anything?” The girl quibbles. “I can see some things. I just can’t see them very well.” There is a pattern that seems to be quite popular among manufacturers of bus seat covers. It is made up of think black lines and primary colors, with a grey background. It looks like a shattered stained-glass window, and it would be quite attractive it were not so intimately associated with boredom and mild nausea. If you look straight out of the window of a bus and keep your eyes fixed in place, you will see the fence posts as one long stutter of wood. However, if you flick your eyes from side to side in the right way you can see each post free of any blurring; except during the brief time it takes to flick your eyes away from the post that is disappearing out the back of your window, and towards the new posts that are emerging out of the front of the window. Just inside the shoulder of the road there is a smooth, shiny patch that looks like black ice but is not black ice. A red truck goes past.

“Are we nearly there yet?” This is the girl again. “Are we almost nearly there yet? Are we almost nearly almost there yet? Are we almost nearly, almost…” but she stops short, hooks a finger between her bottom gum and lip, and looks puzzled. The young woman sitting on the seat in front of mine has a barbed-wire tattoo on her upper arm. I can see this because there is a gap between the window and the seat. It just so happens that I can see the reflection of the driver’s head in the window ahead of me. I see him itch is ear once, then get tired of waiting for him to indiscreetly pick his nose. The kids start making noises. They are good at this. They make tiny booming noises, duck noises, nail-on-blackboard noises, high multi-tone rasps, electric-saw squeals. They play with their voices like drunken thespians. They are not imitating the noises of animals or machinery: they just make noises and come across the familiar ones by accident. Everyone in the bus listens to them. Three white cars go past. A tractor comes down the next hill with seven cars behind it, and it looks as if the tractor is towing all these cars along on its own steam. The kids make a noise that sounds like “buying” but which is not. They make it again, in a slightly different pitch and timbre. This game is fun, and they keep playing. I remember that I will need to courier something up to Wellington because I left it behind. A moment later I see a red courier van go past. Now the word is less like “buying” and more like “beating,” and with every repetition the “b” is sliding further into a “v.” The kids have an orange toy in the shape of a laptop, and when they press a certain key the laptop makes a noise that is cross between a siren and snorting elephant. I note that when this noise is repeated at the right frequency it sounds very much like the TARDIS when it takes off, at least when it takes off in the new TV series of Dr. Who.

We arrive in Picton and the little boy points his arm in that wobbly infant way, with the elbow and pointing finger imperfectly extended and the fist imperfectly closed, and makes a noise that could mean anything from “wader” to “beaver.” I get off and enjoy the view that visitors get when they arrive at the Picton waterfront on a fine day, a view that I am keen on despite frequent viewings. If you want to know what that view is like, you’ll have to go there yourself.

Apricots in Clyde

Like the sky, the surface of water changes constantly under the guidance of the sun, the rain and the wind. There are clouds in a lake, streaky thin clouds and pale dumps of fluff, and there are great areas of blankness and calm.

The water is in different states in different times and in different places. Here it is dark and lazy, like oil; there it is just liquid, clear and easy-moving. Now it is textured in the way paint is textured when it is layered up roughly; and now it is pure, unlined, a blue gas coming up out of nothing. There is electricity in the water, and when the sun is right and the waves are right you can see it flash across the surface in sheets of low lightening; and because there is lightening there must be stars as well, and you can see those stars if you look closely enough: the water glitters with them, at certain times and certain places, and looking down at the water is like looking down on a city during a night of fireworks.

Here on the rock the sun is hot and the water is deep, sore-feet hot and yellow-green deep. One or two tussocks spike out of the rocks. They are yellow and green and have one or two grey hairs. You can throw an apricot stone into the lake and watch it go down, twinkling like a flake of gold. After a while it breaks up into liquid blobs and then disappears altogether.

Everyone can see that the water is wavy on the surface, but you need to look carefully to see how many different waves there are, waves of different speeds and sizes and directions of travel. Often they are not really waves at all, but depressions in the water, smooth around the edges like dimples. A moderate wind turns them into wrinkles, where the rising peaks look to have too much water in them and not enough speed so they collapse as they go over like a piece of loose skin. A little more wind and they slap down with a little explosion of froth.

When the wind gets up a bit more the whole surface starts to heave, and a set of wide, low ripples moves the smaller ripples up and down, and it is like something has moved under the water and not just above it. There is a stick on the lake and this stick feels as you or I would feel if we discovered that the hill we were riding on was not a hill at all but a great beast who had just woken up. There are tiny waves as well, concentric threads of water that ripple outwards and ride the bigger waves. They are made by tiny stones and the wings of drowning flies.

All of this can be observed from the dam-end of Lake Clyde, in the South Island of New Zealand, where I went in January 2007. The township of Clyde is a pleasant enough place. It takes a while to get away from the generic suburban garageland, but it is worth it when you do, as the town centre (or what looked to be the centre; it is small enough to be a minor offshoot) is made up of old-seeming buildings, with early-settler facades. One of those facades has a plastic sign outside reading “Cybernet Central” in highlighter-green type. Two young children sold me 20 apricots for 3 dollars.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Philosophy: The Examined Life is Worth Writing About

How does one write an introduction to the topic of Philosophy? It is not too hard to do the same thing for travel, or for creative writing or for metaphor, because those topics are both narrower than Philosophy, and occur at a lower level. By the first of those properties I mean that they are smaller in scope than Philosophy, that they take in less of the world, in much the same way that the topic of “tennis” takes in less than the topic of “sport.” By the second of those properties I mean something that is a little harder to describe. Perhaps I can get at this hard-to-describe thing by saying that Philosophy not only has something to say about the content of those other topics, but also about the form in which that content must appear. It is three-quarters plausible to say that, if we wish to say anything seriously true or interesting about travel or metaphor, and even (perhaps) about creative writing, we not only must say something that adds to Philosophical knowledge; we also must arrive at the things we say in a Philosophical manner, using the methods of Philosophy.

It is a commonplace that Philosophy is not really a collection of doctrines, but a collection of methods; or perhaps a collection of doctrines about methods. I do not just want to repeat that commonplace here (though I think I am in danger of doing so). I want to add to this commonplace the thought that the methods peculiar to Philosophy are not really peculiar to Philosophy: though Philosophy gives them greater emphasis than they are given by other fields of interest, these methods are present in any field of study that is worthy of the name. It is not too hard to elucidate and justify the activity of metaphor, or the activity of travel or of History. But how should we go about elucidating and justifying the activity of Philosophy, when Philosophy is the thing that is meant to disclose what it means to elucidate or justify something? One could just apply Philosophy to Philosophy, I suppose, but that means that the account turns in on itself in a wholly unsatisfying fashion. In elucidating and justifying an activity, one wants to get back from it somehow, to get a good outside view.

So instead of waffling on in this semi-comprehensible way about the difficult nature of describing the nature of Philosophy, I am going to do what any human blogger is bound to do every now and then do, and post an old essay of mine. The essay is a response to the question: If, as Socrates declared, the unexamined life is not worth living, what are the implications for the modern day? Strictly speaking, this essay does not really follow the method of inquiry that Philosophers, or at least one large group of the current species, would probably not regard as real Philosophy. There is just too little sustained and detailed argument here, and too many cute metaphors. This is the sort of essay that you submit for competitions that are put out collaboratively by the English and Philosophy departments; not the sort of essay you would use as the basis for a talk at the annual Philosophy conference. Nevertheless, I am confident that it captures something of the Philosophical spirit (with a bit of History thrown in as well), even if it does not give a very exact imitation of its method.

No worthwhile activity generates freedoms without admitting constraints of some kind, and the most worthwhile activities make use of their constraints to give their freedoms their most rich and liberating form. These ideas are easy to state, but they are hard to fully understand. Socrates, as he appears in the works of Plato, presents one way of understanding them, one system of thought and action that applies its constraints to the advantage of its freedoms, and his understanding is in most respects as relevant to modern times as it was to his own. Socrates advises us to recognise that freedoms and constraints will always pull and push upon eachother; it is not worth trying to escape this interplay, and to have one without the other, but there is great worth in trying to bring this interplay into a more satisfactory form, to let it proceed less in the manner of two fighters, who drag eachother out in a series of fierce and increasingly reluctant attacks, and more in the manner of two dancers, who each achieve, through their contact with one another, a lasting harmony and energy that they could not achieve on their own.

To say, as Socrates said, that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” is to recommend a particular system of freedoms and constraints. Socrates articulated that system in his action and conversation, and through it he recommended a number of qualities, such as humility, honesty, courage, mildness of manner, clarity of speech, a measured scepticism, and a sense of humour. These are all important Socratic virtues, and a full account of the “examined life” would consider all of them, but here it will suffice to consider just three of the defining qualities of the Socratic life: universality, independence, and unity. This account is rendered incomplete by the absence of those minor qualities listed above; and it is also slightly warped, as any account of Socrates is bound to be, by the brilliant heat of Plato. But these effects should not be too misleading, and an account of the three qualities just mentioned is enough to bring into the current century the ideals of a man who lived four hundred years before Christ. This is a long way to move a collection of ideals, and some of them have worn out on the way, or become unrecognisable. But they are a very carefully crafted set of ideals, designed to endure long journeys and changes of climate. Most of them can be easily applied to modern life, both as warnings and as sources of inspiration, and where some of their parts have worn away it is easy to find new parts to fit into the old place. And Socrates gives us every chance of making whatever repairs are needed: the central part of this collection of ideas, the most carefully crafted part, is the part that tells us how to craft our own, and how to do it carefully and well.

To begin with, Socrates tells us that in order to craft ideas with any success, it is necessary to achieve some measure of universality. Although Socrates was a distinctively practical philosopher, a man of the court and the party and the marketplace, he was also a distinctively abstracted philosopher, one who wished in some sense to get above the world of particulars, of courts and parties and marketplaces, and contemplate the world at a level of greater generality. For Plato, and for most philosophers who have come after him, this means not only that he spent his time working with highly general concepts, like justice, knowledge and beauty, but also that he wished to have an awareness of those concepts that was universally valid, an awareness that was free from the peculiar illusions and contingencies of his own condition, or of anyone else’s condition.

The idea that such universality is possible, and that it can be achieved through rational inquiry, has of course been challenged. Those who are fond of discovering portentous correspondences between science and culture will note that one of the most famous scientific theories of our century was called the “Theory of Relativity”, suggestive of the “alterity” present in the modern world, the “decline of centres”, the “eclipse of the grand narratives”, and other ideas that are associated with “postmodernism.” And it is hard to deny that the postmodernist thinkers have responded sensitively to real features of the world (even if they deny that such a thing exists). That is, it is hard to deny that the world is larger, more diverse, and (justifiably) less willing to prostrate itself before the shrine of Western rationality, than some people once thought. Truth, moral legitimacy, correct modes of reasoning: all of these can seem, by virtue of our new sensitivity to this largeness and diverseness, to be relative to each person’s and each culture’s peculiar “way of seeing things.” But it does not follow from our current inability to discern any constancy in the flux, that no such constancy exists. Perhaps it just means that we are currently a little confused about things, or that our theory needs to take more things into account. Socrates would remind us that Einstein’s preferred name for his theory was the “Theory of Invariance”, and that if this theory has something to say to the modern world, it is this: the fact of variety and fragmentation is no good reason to abandon the search from some new constant that can draw the fragments together.

It is easy to feel that this search for universality is just a kind of abstract game, one that satisfies a narrow intellectual need rather than anything more moral or humane. Some might even sympathise with those who claim that the outside world is just our invention, and that the “rationality” of those people who strain towards universals is just one more invention, one more “discourse.” Hence there is no truth, falsity, or even any clear meaning, in the statement “I am wearing a white shirt”, nor in the statement “three hundred people died in a massacre yesterday.” The first statement, however, suggests that the theory is bizarre. The second statement suggests not only that the theory is bizarre but also that it is inhuman and immoral, because it shows how the theory turns the most brutal crimes into trivialities. The theorist has no reason to do anything about the place where three hundred people were atrociously killed, because noone was really atrociously killed: they were murdered in our discourse, and nothing more. Extreme relativism lends great support to universal apathy, and to seek out those constraints on belief and action which are universally compelling is not only to satisfy an intellectual desire, but also to satisfy a human need.

This is not to deny that the search for universality can be harmful if it is carried out in the wrong way. Indeed, one lesson that our times teach those people who hope to fit everyone into the same framework, is that there is a danger of crushing a lot of people in the process. Hence, for example, the New Zealand historian Margaret Orbell writes about the mistake that Western observers make of trying to explain Maori myths in Western terms, and especially of those who try to match Maori myths up to historical fact, and who in doing so ignore some of the richer and more relevant meanings of those myths. Orbell understands those myths in what we would call a more “tolerant” or “sympathetic” or “culturally sensitive” manner, and in doing so she avoids what she calls a “rationalisation”[1] of those myths. Orbell’s understanding of the myths seems correct, but it is misleading to call hers an “unrational” understanding, as long as that suggests that there is something futile and misguided at trying to fit these mythical creations into Western patterns of thought. Orbell’s new understanding is not achieved by abandoning rational thought, but by applying it with greater rigour and sensitivity, and it is just the reasonableness of her thought that convinces the reader that her account of Maori myths is better than the former, narrowminded account. There is no harm in trying to find a fit between our conceptual framework and others, provided we are rational and reasonable enough to fit our framework around them.

Socrates also saw that it was difficult to craft anything of universal value unless one achieved some sort of independence, a critical detachment from the things that everyone else does and believes. This attitude gains a very clear expression in the Crito, a dialogue in which Socrates considers whether it is better for him to escape from jail, or to stay there and accept his death sentence. Eventually he decides upon the latter course, and in doing so it is necessary for him to distance himself from the pleadings of his friends and from his knowledge that any normal person would probably choose to escape. He wishes to constrain his actions to his understanding of what is really right, and in order to do so he must free himself from the constraints of instinct and expectation.

The Crito is of course the ultimate expression of Socrates’ devotion to the philosophical ideal: he was willing to die in order to live an examined life. It is not necessary for modern people to go quite so far; but there is just as much reason now, as there was in ancient times, for people to get outside the jails of common practices and commonly held beliefs. This does not mean adopting an attitude of complete scepticism, or of responding to all forms of authority in a spirit of mindless rebellion. Complete scepticism is little better than complete relativism, and mindless rebellion is adopted so often that it is itself a convention, and one to be challenged as much as any other. What it does mean is that one should be sceptical insofar as scepticism is justified by good reasons, and that one should rebel against anything that is mindless, as one should rebel against anything that is brutal, petty or inhuman.

This advice is not very original, perhaps no more original than mindlessness and brutality are original. To give it more force, it is worth considering one element of modern life that is not only distinctive of our times, but which may also be regarded as a modern equivalent of elements of ancient Greek life that Plato wished to challenge. There were no billboards in ancient Greece, but there were advertisements and advertisers, and they came in the form of rhetoric and rhetoricians, two features of his times that Socrates set himself squarely against. The rhetorician was successful largely because he appealed to the unexamined instincts of the people. In terms of the metaphor that Socrates carries right through the dialogue Gorgias, the rhetorician fed the people on rich and charming foods, foods that caress the palate and disable the brain. Modern advertisers do much the same thing. For example, one current television advertisement exhorts viewers to “Make the most of now”, advice that is sumptuously preceded by a sparkling story of sunsets and mayflies and set to an appropriately languid soundtrack, all of which is meant to invite people into some brand or other of cellular paradise. This colourful rhetoric also invites some interesting questions. Where is this “now” that is so seductive to mayflies? Is it this one, or this one, or some other one that I have not reached yet? And what about all the other “nows”: surely I should make something of them as well? And why should I believe that humans are the same as mayflies? Perhaps some people are inclined to think like mayflies, but am I obliged to do the same? These questions, of course, are beside the point: the point is to dull the mind by ravishing the senses. Hence to live an examined life is not just to set oneself apart from the instinctive beliefs and activities of the day, but also to set oneself apart from one’s own instinctive beliefs and activities, to become freer from the constraints of self as from the constraints of society. This does not mean becoming free from all constraints; it means making oneself free to recognise, and act upon, the constraints that are imposed by reason.

This prescription does not sound very appetising. It is easier to digest when one has read Plato’s writings, because he shows his independence not only in his ability to detach himself from instinct and expectation, but also in the courage and eloquence and passion with which articulates a new ideal. To be sure, it is hard to imagine Socrates lending his eloquence to an ideal that was not fully supported by sound reasoning; but it is also hard to imagine the writings of Plato without recalling the eloquence of the Symposium and the Phaedrus, and the halo of shining imagery that surrounds his arguments. There is rhetoric in these writings, but it is not the rhetoric of the sophist or the political orator: it is the kind that springs not from a base or fleeting desire to impose oneself on others, or from some unreflective passion, but from a deep and sincere feeling for the worth of his peculiar enthusiasms, a feeling that has been constrained as far as possible by the results of rational inquiry. This suggests a lesson, one which Socrates might not entirely approve of, but which makes his ideas easier to swallow: it is well worth letting one’s actions be guided by rational inquiry, but rational inquiry can only guide us so far towards illuminating the activities that make individual lives most rich and fulfilling; to take us further we sometimes need to fall back on other guides, such as the sincere feeling that comes from long and meaningful devotion to an art or a cause or a mental or physical discipline. It is tempting to say, in response to Socrates, that the unlived life is not worth examining. This is too strong, but it does point towards an important truth: the question of what is worthwhile is most fully answered by living a life out, and not merely by thinking it through.

Another enthusiasm that comes out in Plato’s writings, and in the actions of Socrates, is his desire to achieve unity. He tries, firstly, to bring unity to belief. At the most elementary level, this means bringing into view the beliefs of his interlocutors that are incompatible with eachother, and suggesting (sometimes) a way of removing the incompatibility. On a higher level, it means that Socrates tries to draw together all the diverse and unruly elements of human thought and action, and set them down into a clear and simple pattern. Even if we do not agree with his results, we can admire the grandeur of his ambition and the value of the project. And we can value it all the more, and share his ambitions, when we contemplate (or read other people’s contemplations of) the narrowness and specialisation of the modern career, the proliferation of books that are filled with disconnected trivia of the snappiest and least satisfying sort[2], and the admirable but ultimately depressing books that try to discover profound correspondences between ancient Vedic texts and quantum physics. The kind of unity that Socrates sought needs to be rationally warranted to have any worth. It also needs to be something more than a bland homogenisation, a commitment to reducing everything to the confusion of a single idea, to saying that “all is discourse”, or “all is power” or “everything is metaphor”; and it would need to be more than a commitment to “blurring the boundaries” between as many things as possible, a commitment to “fusion”, whether it be of food or music or intellectual pursuits. It would unite different elements not by conflating them but by connecting them, by placing them in clear relations to one another.

Perhaps this ambition is too grand to ever be reached. Nevertheless, it is always possible to make more modest advances in the direction of that ambition, and one way in which such an advance could benefit the modern world, is if it helped to connect technological brilliance more closely with ethical reflection. If those two qualities are not set into a proper relation, there is always a danger that any new scientific triumph will be turned by some passing idiocy into an instrument of vice or brutality. Hence the internet is not only a vast and intricate product of scientific and mathematical craftsmanship, but a heaven for pornographers; the machinery of war, a splendid tribute to the skill of many good people, is a hell for many others. A cellphone, whose speed and sophistication is unfathomable to most of its users, can just as easily be used as a purveyor of threats or unsavoury images, or as rather feeble medium for a generic, impersonal sort of information delivery, as it can be used for speeding up and smoothing out the services that make real improvements in peoples’ lives. The Republic reminds us that mere quickness of mind is not enough to guarantee wisdom: the people who dwell in the cave are very quick and clever in their apprehension of the shadows. Scientific expertise offers the modern world many advantages, many powers of prediction and organisation, but these can easily become disadvantages if they are not constrained by the advice that is given out by other kinds of reflection.

Socrates also tried to unite thought and action, to bring the products of intellection to the problems of everyday life. For Socrates, to think was to act, because his thinking took the form of conversations, sincere concrete engagements with other human beings that arose naturally in the course of his day, springing up vividly at the party, the courthouse, the prison, the river on a summers day, the marketplace. It is easy to feel that the modern world is hostile to this sort of unity, encouraging people as it does to devote their mental energies to problems of a technical and specialised kind, and leave free their parties and summer days for more palatable amusements. It is also easy to press the current state of universities to the service of this point, and in particular to mention the creeping transformation of some universities, from places in which to contemplate the more human parts of human affairs, into training centres for technical disciplines such as accounting and engineering: and surely it is not too fanciful to see this condition as the institutional expression of a disunity that exists in the lives of individuals. But the actuality of this condition does not make it necessary, any more than the condition of Athens made it necessary for Socrates to live a confined and ordinary life, and to resign himself to the indifference or obstinacy of his interlocutors.

Plato’s most elementary effect is to set in the reader’s mind the image of a great upwards sweep, a climbing arc. At the bottom there is dirt and confusion and darkness, and at the top there is light and order. The way up is slow and difficult, and perhaps one never gets to the top at all; but any progress towards the apex is an improvement, and brings its rewards. It is a simple image, and by now it is perhaps a little trite. It is also simple, and a little trite, to talk about universality, independence and unity. But Plato’s images are saved from triteness and from simple-mindedness by the consistency of his vision, and his abstractions are saved from the same fate by the skill and eagerness and honesty with which he makes them concrete. The most concrete expression of those values is Socrates, and Plato uses the concreteness of Socrates to show the worth, the pressing, human worth, of finding something universal among particulars, of being independent of others and of oneself, and of looking for unity, even if the only available unity is the blending of thought and action. Living an examined life in Socrates’ day meant putting reason to the service of these pursuits. In the modern day it means much the same thing, with a nod towards cultural diversity and a wince towards advertising, self-help books, Jacques Derrida, narrow specialisation, and blind science. It means moving away from easy freedoms and towards better ones, and making a more liberating choice of constraints. It means doing as Socrates asks, which is not that we accept his beliefs without question and then live them out, but that we examine them carefully and act on the results.

[1] Margaret Orbell, Hawaiki: A New Approach to Maori Tradition, Christchurch: University of Canterbury Press, 1991
[2] J. Peder Zane,

All references to Plato's works are drawn from:
Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (ed.), Princeton, 1989

GRE Response: Tradition and Modernity

GREs are imminent, and so I have been busy trying to answer deep questions in forty-five minute stretches. Below is an attempt to respond intelligently to the statement: "Tradition and modernization are incompatible. One must choose between them.” My brief essay is the tangle of metaphors and big words, of rough-edged similes and bloated generalisations, that I understand to be the proper form of response to the Issue Question. I have posted the following essay partly because I quite like it, and partly because I need something to put in my “Miscellany” section.

In the present day, perhaps more than in any other era, people are confronted with an immensely fast-moving vision of society. Just as computers double in speed every 18 months, so the length of our historical vision seems to shrink at much the same pace; and the extent of modernisation, as well as its speed, sometimes gives the appearance that it is impossible to avoid without making a great effort to remove oneself completely from the onward surge of technology, fashion, advertising, urbanisation. On the whole, however, this appearance is illusory. The important choices in the present day are not between tradition and modernization but between alternatives that transcend this dichotomy, and require, perhaps, a mixing of those seemingly opposed influences.

As mentioned, in a number of areas of contemporary life there are tensions between modern and traditional forms of living. In the area of communications, for example, the internet and cellphones seem to have supplanted more traditional forms of verbal interaction: and one of the most vivid symbols of the divide between old and new is the rise of the language of texting, which seems to shut off an entire older generation from an understanding of that most basic feature of a person’s social being, their speech. By comparison, the ponderous eloquence and precise diction of, say, a History text, seems ancient and distant.

A closer look at the situation, however, reveals that the divide is not so much a rift as a small depression in the social landscape, and one that is criss-crossed both by tracks and bridges, and by rifts that head in quite different directions. This is hinted at by the example used above: any History student is likely to have an equal aptitude for reading 19th Century prose as for composing text messages in the truncated, special-purpose, modern-day idiom.

In order to see this more clearly, it is worth distinguishing between, and briefly discussing, two different but related ways in which tradition and modernisation. [sic] Firstly, there are a large number of concepts, ideas, activities and questions that do not undergo any essential change over time. The form in which they are manifested might change markedly, even violently, and it is this kind of change that causes us to shudder with fears of rift and apocalypse; but this external change is to the real thing as the change in the color of our paper is to the mathematical verities that are written upon it. Hence Plato wrote on sheets of Papyrus [did he?!], and Daniel Dennet [forgive me: it was the first name that came to mind] writes on a computer, but they address the same questions, have the same goals, and use the same methods. The language of love, too, is unaffected by the changes to the social substrate upon which it is written. Lust, infatuation, pleasure, affection, betrayal: these may have new plots, but they are ancient themes. To be sure, there is a certain amount of necessity involved in choosing between the modern story and the ancient story, but that choice is not the important one.

The second form of compatibility can be located in the complementary relations that exist between the past and the present versions of various activities. Present-day discoveries are the children of early-modern insights (in Physics, for example); present day conflicts can only be fully understood in terms of their historical development; modern cities are the outgrowths from old towns. We may be forced to choose the modern world, but in doing so we also choose the past.

For these two reasons, the divide between tradition and modernisation is not inevitable. To be sure, it is always tempting to ignore those pursuits that have a timeless quality to them, or to ignore the interaction that keeps the past and the present [together]; but human weakness is one timeless feature of modern life that we must try to overcome.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

A Story About A Cow

Once on the edge of somewhere there was a large field. It was filled with grass and it was very large indeed. It was so large that the sky was not big enough to cover it, and at the far ends of the field, just above the horizon, you could see the stars and planets poking through, even during the day time. It was so big, in fact, that noone had ever found the middle – no one was sure whether or not there was a middle at all. Some people said that it was bigger than the whole world. Some said it was even bigger than two whole worlds. Some people even said it was bigger than everything put together, and that it was the Dwelling Place of Divine Oneness – but most people dismissed that as superstitious nonsense.

At any rate, it was a very big field. Not much lived on the large field. This was mainly because it was on the edge of somewhere, and not many things lived in somewhere, let alone on its edge. Something did live there, though. At a long way from the sides of the field – close enough to the middle to know where it was, but not close enough to see the stars and planets during the day time – there lived a cow named Arthur. Like most cows, Arthur was, for a cow, about medium height. He was black and white, and whoever had first painted him had almost run out of white after finishing one side, and so on the other side Arthur had patches of black which stood out like clumsy puddles. From one side, Arthur looked very much like an overgrown sheep. From the other side, he looked very much like a cow.

Arthur did very little. There were no flies, and there was nothing much to think about. Even if there had been something to think about, Arthur probably would not have thought it. Mostly, Arthur ate grass. But that was not all. Every three minutes, Arthur raised his right front leg off the ground and held it five hoofs off the ground, as if he was waiting for something enormous to happen. Then he put it down again. There was not much noise, apart from Arthur’s eating. Nevertheless, if a person were to find Arthur and open their ear right up and listen very carefully, she (or he) would hear a very soft, very dry and very insistent whining sound. This is the sound a maggot makes as it eats away a cow’s tongue. And the maggot said:

"It is that time of year again, and inevitably the atmosphere has changed. For there is in the wide noon of every year a certain vacancy in the air, a kind of drowsy emptiness that surrounds a maggot and his friends and insinuates itself into the joints and ripples of a the little creature, working its subtle poison on the tender parts. It is a vacant thing, but it has not the comforting formlessness of vacuum. Rather, it has the vacancy of dust, of not-quite-vaccuum, an almost-void of floating motes and dandruff, the kind of vacancy that tempts a creature with the fixity of substance only to torment him with substancelessness, with the falseness of its soft and yielding matter. It is a disease, but it is also a prison, a prison of an unusually paralysing kind. It is the prison of disorientation, of being lost among the empty inners of everything, and being hopelessly open. It is not a prison of somewhere, of iron bars and containment. It is the prison of everywhere, of large and changeless spaces, of slow, wandering uncertainty. It is the prison of monotony and nothing-to-do, of white time and settled space. It is not the prison of restraint, and it is not the prison of incarceration. It is the prison of ease. It is the prison of freedom."

Three minutes later the cow raised his right front leg off the ground. Then he put it down again.

Creative Writing: Wild Air, No Spine

Why do I write creative stuff? Self-expression, I guess, order and beauty and aesthetic bliss. Specifically, a delight in words, their sounds and their inexhaustible novelty. Boredom, solitude. The honour of being part of a tradition, and also the pleasure of being part of a present-day community. Habit, laziness, intimacy. An interest in preserving experience, but also in enriching experience, enriching the future and the present as well as the past. A tendency to occasionally become disenchanted with reason and real-life, and to look for enchantment elsewhere, specifically in the wild air of the imagination, the strange air. An interest in people and the way they talk. An interest in discovering just what experience amounts to.

Creative writing has its drawbacks. All that wild air, it’s so wild and so airy, and at times I would rather go and do something more solid, something like making dinner or going for a run, than flutter about in all that empty space. And there is something nauseating about poetry. Perhaps it is just that I have read some bad poems, or perhaps it is that I have read good poems in the wrong way, but there is an earnestness and self-absorption, and a kind of weak yearning, about some poetry I have experienced, that makes them very unattractive.

And any story seems to lack an essential solidity, probably because they do not have any real demonstrative force. This makes them all seem pretty boneless, even if they are good fun. Sure, so-and-so wrote a novel in which the weak and unfortunate could draw hope from the bottomless reservoir of their good-will and humanity; but another so-and-so could just as easily write a novel in which the opposite is true. A story is an invention, and is detached from the world in the same way that a painting is detached from the real world: there is as much reason to regard a story as true as it is to regard a painting as true, when the painting is just something that some guy with brushes has slapped down in an inspired moment. Sure, both the story and the painting may be demonstrably accurate in their representation of the world. But the demonstration does not come from the story or the painting, but from a reasoned account of the story, the painting, and the world. And how can a novel or painting have any spine if it has no demonstrative force? I think that artists can put up a sound defence of these charges, but in some moods I have no sympathy for them, and call Art a failure because it fails to be Philosophy.

Fortunately, those moods are infrequent enough for me to write something creative every now and then, and so I’ll slap those things down here if they’re not too personal or too crap. I think I have a pretty good idea of what is personal and what is not, but I’m not so sure about crap. So if I write anything that is offensively crap, then any visitors are welcome to say so, and I will be secretly dismayed and write a fiery response arguing that it is not crap at all, but something much more edible. And if it is still too crap (and even if it is not), readers are heartily invited to go along to Defect Perfection, a blog attached to the literary anthology of the same name (which is released by Canterbury University about once a year). You can view the writing on the blog, but you can also contribute a piece of your own, by emailing us. More details on the blog.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Education as an Ideal (Part I)

Note: Links to part 2 and 3 of this series can be found over here

INTERVIEWER: Would you advise your students to become schoolteachers?
ANTHONY BURGESS: Only the ones that I dislike.

Let us suppose for a moment that Burgess was telling the truth on this one. If so, he shares a distaste for the art of schoolteaching that seems to me to have fairly wide currency among the general population. I do not mean a distaste for schoolteachers, but for what they do: the general population is on the whole quite pleased to have schoolteachers round to dinner, and if asked the general population would probably say that schoolteachers “do a fine job,” or something like that; but a lot of them privately consider that job to be one of the least appealing around. Since I have not yet had the general population around to dinner, I do not yet have a really accurate idea of its opinion on this matter; but everything I have heard so far seems to confirm what I have just said. If my impression here is correct, this is a bad situation, a really bad situation, and one that should change. If school education is really to perform its functions properly, and if schools are to be not just a kind of early zoo, or a sop to the prevailing ideology, it is not enough for the general population to have a vague idea that it is a healthy-minded occupation; there must be, among at least some people, and ideally among as many people as possible, a sharp sense of both the need for good schoolteaching, and the appeal of the job. We tend to think of teaching as a job, possibly as a profession, maybe as a career, but usually as the enactment of a set of ideas and capacities that are developed through formal training: what we need is for a large group of people to think of it as a vocation, the enactment of an ideal. The following is my first attempt to show why reasonable people can think of schoolteaching in this way. If my impression about the general population is incorrect, then the following thoughts can do no harm.

The following is also, of course, an introduction to a broader subject, namely Education. My interest here is not just in the vocation of schoolteacher; but also in the institutions of school and University; in other, less formal forms of learning; and in the academic study of the nature and purpose of Education, which I will call the Philosophy of Education. The latter is important because some of the repellent features of schoolteaching are, I think, contingent features that are peculiar to our time and our school system; and one cannot erase these features without making some changes to that school system. And Philosophy of Education seems to me the best place to go to get a better idea of just which features of modern schoolteaching are contingent, and what alterations to the system are the best ones to make.

With this in mind, I will start this, the first part of my little polemic, by expanding on my suggestion that the current jobs of schoolteaching really does have some repellent features. Low pay and ill-discipline are two obvious features of this kind. These features are easy to regard as peculiar to our current system, and for this reason I will disregard them for now. Here I will deal with one other feature of current schoolteaching that is less obviously contingent, and which probably puts a lot of people off. It is natural to think that schoolteaching is a regression, a regression partly of a social kind but primarily of an intellectual kind. A schoolteacher is asked to abandon all of the sophistication of adult life, including the sophistication of their own discipline, and work in a place where there is not only a lack of such sophistication but also (in many cases) an unwillingness to embrace it. A maths teacher is asked to stop studying Riemannian geometry, and start teaching adolescents how to find the equation of a straight line; an English teacher abandons the subtleties of James Joyce or Milton for the sake of marking bad essays about Flowers for Algernon. There is something very depressing about this sort of backwardness, is as if all of the work in between was a waste of time: it seems like a collapse into the past, the opposite of human flourishing.

It may be that current schoolteaching encourages this kind of regression, but it does not do so necessarily. In saying this I do not deny that maths teachers are, in some sense, asked to downgrade their mathematics in order to become school teachers: what I deny is that this is a full view of the matter. First I want to make the obvious distinction between the matter that is taught and the matter of teaching. It may be (I will raise some doubts about this in a moment) that the matter which schoolteachers teach is primitive compared to what they have learned. But the matter of teaching, the skills and ideas that are involved in the work of passing on that subject to the student, are not primitive at all. If one concentrates on the taught matter, one sees the teacher as similar to a highly trained surgeon who is asked to hand out plasters at a playground. If one concentrates on the matter of teaching, one sees the teacher (rightly, I think) as similar to the same surgeon who happens to have been asked to operate on children. The teacher’s key function is as an expert in teaching their subject, not in the subject itself, and the former requires just as much sophistication (though often of quite a different sort) than the latter.

Of course, I do not mean that the matter of teaching requires no knowledge of the taught matter. I do not think I would insult too many teachers (and I hope I do not) by saying that their knowledge of a subject is less refined than that of an expert in the subject. On the other hand, I want to stress that the subject-knowledge necessary to teach a subject is greater than one might imagine. To illuminate this point, it is worth making the distinction between the student’s knowledge of a discipline and the teacher’s knowledge of a discipline. By the first I mean the knowledge about a discipline that the student is meant to acquire as a result of teaching; by the second I mean the knowledge that the teacher must have of the discipline before she can teach it effectively. Even if the former were primitive, the latter need not be. Anyone who has tried to teach a subject will know that it is often demanding, and that the demands are placed not only one one’s patience, social skills and other general teaching skills, but also one one’s grasp of the subject at hand. It is one thing to be competent at drawing equations for straight lines; it is quite another thing to be competent enough at this task, and related tasks in mathematics, to convey the basic idea with clarity, brevity, with one eye to relating this problem to others and with another eye to making it all seem very novel and exciting. It is also worth remembering that the teacher is usually hopelessly outnumbered by students, because this allows one to recognise the breadth of subject knowledge that is required of a teacher if she is to satisfy the curiosity of all of the students in a class. As far as I know, a trained expert in Science (for example) is usually only expected to possess highly refined knowledge in, at the most, one of the three main branches of science (Chemistry, Physics, or Biology). A Science teacher, on the other hand, cannot call himself competent unless she has a sound knowledge of all of these branches, plus some knowledge of the History and Philosophy of the subject: a less refined knowledge of each of these than is possessed by an expert, perhaps, but knowledge nevertheless.

Another way in which the teacher’s subject knowledge, and also the student’s subject knowlegd, is less primitive than one might think, is by differentiating between two kinds of primitivity. Teachers are asked to return to the basics of their discipline, and this could mean two things: it could mean a return to trivialities, or it could mean a return to foundations. Knowing how to count is a triviality: but the idea of a number, which is most clearly expressed in the practice of counting, is foundational to mathematics. Likewise, the act of identifying some expression as a literal or metaphorical expression is (at least in most high-school versions of that act) a trivial exercise, something that an English student learns to do right at the start of their education, and which they do very easily after that; but the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical is, I would say, foundational to literature. And a similar point could probably be made about History, Art and Science: the first step towards learning these subjects usually brings a student into contact with concepts or skills that are, in one manifestation, the easiest to grasp; and, in another manifestations, the most essential to the subject, and because of this the most important to grasp. Now, it may be that current practices encourage the teaching of the “basics” as trivialities, not as foundations. But this need not be the case. To be sure, there a limits to how far one can go towards teaching the foundations of number to high-school maths students (and there are probably few professional mathematicians, let alone high-school students, who have trudged through Russell’s Principia, or have read Quine on the subject of the foundations of mathematics), and I suspect that the point generalises: it usually turns out that the foundations of a subject are the most difficult to grasp as well as the most important. But I also suspect that there is enough that is both foundational and accessible about the basic notions of any subject, to make the teaching of those basics less like a return to infancy and more like a return to home, a return to the core of a discipline.

I hope that the above points give some genuine support to my claim that schoolteaching is not a regressive activity; the kind of support, that is, which not only gives the claim rational warrant, but also gives it emotional pull. One further point, and one which I would be especially negligent to ignore, is that schoolteaching is in fact one of the most progressive and forward-looking activities one could possibly achieve, as long as one considers its full consequences for society as well as its consequences for the teacher. As Richard points out over at Philosophy Etc., to equip young people with the general capacity to deal with future problems is to give society a benefit of a second order kind. By becoming a doctor or a politician, a person enables themselves to contribute to the current health of people or of a state; by becoming a teacher, a person enables young people to contribute to the health of the people and the states that they will encounter in their own lifetimes. The difference, as I see it, is not only that the teacher contributes to future gains rather than present gains. It is also that (if her teaching is of the right sort) she contributes to a general ability to solve problems, rather than to this or that particular problem. It is also that she contributes to gains that are currently unimaginable, perhaps because we have not yet discovered the means to make those gains (though future humans will do so, if properly educated), or because we have not yet discovered the need to make those gains (though future humans will do so, if they are properly equipped to identify new problems). School teachers, far from regressing into infancy, are responsible for causing young people to progress into adulthood, and if they make good of this responsibility then they draw the future world into a better state.

So far in this post I have set out to beautify one feature of schoolteaching that is frequently regarded as ugly, or at least that is very easy to see as ugly. What I want to do in the next post is to continue on the same theme, discussing some other features of schoolteaching that should give it a genuine appeal to right-thinking people. These fall into two kinds, namely those features that obtain in schoolteaching at any time, and those that arise out of the peculiar difficulties that current schools find themselves in. Both kinds, I hope, would (if they were widely appreciated) be helpful towards moving the art of schoolteaching, and moving Education in general, from the dull suburbs of the public mind into the central city.